yeovil people

Thomas Southwood Smith

Physician and Preacher of Kingston


Thomas Southwood Smith, sometimes professionally known as Southwood Smith, was born on 21 December 1788 in Martock. He was the son of William Smith and Catherine née Southwood (1763-1840).

His parents were members of a strict sect of Calvinist dissenters and in 1798 they became very friendly with the Reverend William Blake, who in that year came to minister to the Presbyterian congregation in the neighbouring town of Crewkerne. Blake was to become a powerful influence in the life of the growing boy, directing his education and moulding his opinions and character.

In 1803 he entered the Baptist academy at Bristol, headed by Dr John Ryland, with the intention of becoming a minister. Smith eventually rebelled against his inherited Calvinism and left the academy in 1808. His parents cut him off, and he never saw them again.

On 25 May 1808, at Clifton, Gloucestershire, he married Anne Read (1788-1812). Thomas and Anne were to have two children; Caroline Southwood (1809-1903) and Emily Southwood (1810-1872) who were both born in Bristol. In 1812, at the age of 24, Anne died.

Thomas studied for the ministry, encouraged by William Blake (1773-1821) of whom he wrote a touching memoir. According to family tradition, his ministry was first exercised among evangelical dissenters in the west of England - presumably Yeovil. Having become a widower, and intending to combine with the preacher's office the practice of medicine, he entered as a medical student at Edinburgh in October 1812, and in November took the vacant charge of the Unitarian congregation then meeting in Skinners' Hall, Canongate, where he raised the attendance from twenty to nearly two hundred. In June 1813 he began a course of fortnightly evening lectures on universal restoration; these were published by subscription as 'Illustrations of the Divine Government' and was admired by the poets Byron, Moore, Wordsworth and Crabbe. On 28 July 1813 he assisted in the formation of the Scottish Unitarian Association, becoming its first secretary. He graduated MD on 1 August 1816.

During 1816 he moved to Yeovil where he became minister at the Unitarian Chapel in Vicarage Street. At the same time he was practicing medicine at his home in Kingston that would later become the Kingston School, later Yeovil County School.

On Wednesday, 4 August 1819, at Hackney, London, Thomas married Mary Christie (1798-1858). They were to have a son, Herman Southwood (1820-1897), born in Yeovil. In 1820 Thomas removed to London, devoting himself to the medical profession, yet still preaching occasionally.

In 1824 Thomas was appointed physician to the London Fever Hospital. The following year he began to write papers on public health. His post gave him the opportunity to study diseases of poverty.

Southwood Smith was a dedicated utilitarian, and a close friend of Jeremy Bentham. He had a particular interest in applying his philosophical beliefs to the field of medical research. In 1827 he published a pamphlet entitled The Use of the Dead to the Living, in which he defended his belief that the dissection of corpses was an important means of improving medical knowledge and ascertaining causes of death. At the time there was a great deal of prejudice against dissection and medical schools had difficulty in obtaining dead bodies. On 9 June 1832, he carried out the highly controversial public dissection of Jeremy Bentham (who had died three days earlier) at the Webb Street School of Anatomy in London.

Thomas separated from his second wife during the 1830s, and then lived for the rest of his life with the artist Margaret Gillies (1803-1887).

In 1842 he was one of the founders of an early housing association, the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes. He was frequently consulted in fever epidemics and on sanitary matters by public authorities. His reports on quarantine (1845), cholera (1850), yellow fever (1852) and on the results of sanitary improvement (1854) were of international importance.

On 10 December 1861, while visiting his daughter Emily in Italy, Thomas died in Florence. He was 72 years old. He is buried in the protestant cemetery outside the Porta Pinti, Florence, Italy.




An extract of Edward Watts' map of 1831 showing Thomas Southwood Smith's home and medical practice as the three parcels numbered 584 at centre, with the path (shown as a double dotted line) leading to his house.




The notice of Thomas and Mary's marriage from the 5 August 1819 edition of the Morning Chronicle.


Thomas Southwood Smith by James Charles Armytage, after Margaret Gillies' stipple engraving, published 1844. National Portrait Gallery.


An advertisement in Whitby's 1883 Yeovil Almanack Advertiser for John Aldridge's Kingston School. This is the house that had been the home and medical practice of Thomas Southwood Smith from 1816 until 1820.


Thomas Southwood Smith, marble bust by Joel T. Hart, 1856. 26" (660 mm) high. National Portrait Gallery.


The monument to the memory of Thomas Southwood Smith in the protestant cemetery outside the Porta Pinti, Florence, Italy. His daughter Emily, who died in 1872, is buried beside him.


An enlargement of the previous photograph showing the cameo medallion of Thomas.